Black Voting Rights And Voter Suppression

Black Voting Rights And Voter Suppression

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A timeline of new and old efforts to limit the political power of Black Americans and other voters of color

Analysis by Brandon Tensley, CNN

“We are witnessing right now a massive and unabashed assault on voting rights unlike anything we’ve ever seen since the Jim Crow era. This is Jim Crow in new clothes.”

That was newly elected Georgia Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock, giving his maiden floor speech in March. His focus on the past — on how racial hierarchies persist — makes good sense.

As of March 24, lawmakers in 47 states have introduced more than 360 bills this year with provisions that restrict voting access, according to New York University School of Law’s Brennan Center for Justice.

(For a rough comparison: The Brennan Center’s tally in early February 2020 identified 35 restrictive bills in 15 states.)

Much of this legislative blitz, which follows Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump in the November presidential election, disproportionately targets voters of color — in particular Black voters, who played a critical role in winning both the White House and the US Senate for Democrats.

The current assault on participatory democracy is consistent with a long US history of political machinations intended to ensure power for White men and keep it at a distance for everyone else, most especially Black Americans.

The timeline below lays out some important dates in this history, as well as dates that mark significant advancements in voting rights.

The years between 1863 and 1877 saw tremendous gains for Black Americans, including the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. But the period was also turbulent — shaped by political violence aimed at reestablishing White authority.

    • According to Columbia University history professor Eric Foner, the Reconstruction era began more than a year before the end of the Civil War, when Abraham Lincoln, the country’s first Republican president, “announced a plan to establish governments in the South loyal to the Union.”

      These governments backed legislation guaranteeing Black Americans’ rights and were vehemently opposed by the counter-revolutionary “Redemption” movement that swept the South.

    • At the Battle of Appomattox Court House in Virginia, Confederate Army general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union Army general Ulysses S. Grant, for all practical purposes ending four years of war.

    • In his message, Johnson said that “Negroes have shown less capacity for government than any other race of people. No independent government of any form has ever been successful in their hands. On the contrary, wherever they have been left to their own devices they have shown a constant tendency to relapse into barbarism.”

      Johnson’s racist remarks illuminated the controversy that still raged over Black Americans’ hard-fought rights during the tumultuous period following the Civil War.

    • The second of the three Reconstruction amendments, the 14th Amendment extended citizenship to all persons “born or naturalized in the United States” and also secured all citizens “equal protection under the laws.”

    • Over the course of about two weeks, White men in Opelousas, a city in St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, killed around 250 people, mostly Black Americans.

      The goal was to suppress turnout among Black voters (and anyone who supported Reconstruction efforts) — earlier that year, Louisiana voters had ratified a state constitution that enfranchised Black men.

    • The third of the three Reconstruction amendments, the 15th Amendment prohibited states from taking away the right to vote “on account of race, color or previous condition of servitude.”

      But states could still impose voter qualifications. And in time, many former Confederate states did exactly that.

    • A mob of about 150 armed White men in Colfax, the seat of Grant Parish, Louisiana, killed between 60 and 150 Black Americans who had taken over the local courthouse and been defending it from possible Democratic seizure following the state’s controversial 1872 gubernatorial election.

      The massacre showed “the lengths to which some opponents of Reconstruction would go to regain their accustomed authority,” Foner documents in his 1988 book, “Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877.”

    • Shortly before Grant left office, an Electoral Commission was created to settle the disputed 1876 presidential election between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden. Democrats agreed to give Hayes the presidency on the understanding that the federal government would remove its troops from the former Confederate states.

      This compromise — or as some historians have it, betrayal — marked the end of Reconstruction.

      “The phase that began in 1877 was inaugurated by … the abandonment of the Negro as a ward of the nation,” historian C. Vann Woodward writes in his 1955 book, “The Strange Career of Jim Crow.”

Around the turn of the 20th century, Southern lawmakers, aware of the fact that they couldn’t explicitly disenfranchise Black voters, began to impose an elaborate mix of, among other things, registration requirements, poll taxes, literacy tests and understanding clauses designed to underpin a new racial regime.

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